In her new job as executive director of the North of Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Nancy Gardella recently hosted more than 40 international tour operators to show them the splendors of her region. They loved Hammond Castle in Gloucester. They were impressed by the family legacy at Woodman’s, everyone’s favorite fried seafood getaway in Essex.
But what really sent them home in a giddy mood was the giant snail that attacked a lobster.
“It was as big as my fist,” recalled Gardella of the savage gastropod, which was on display at Maritime Gloucester, the marine science experience on Cape Ann.
Maritime Gloucester is the kind of attraction that welcomes plenty of tourists during the summer season, when the port city — like many other Massachusetts destinations — is bustling. It’s the offseason that can always use more visitors.
In early April, Gardella met with Keiko Matsudo Orrall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism, to accept a $1 million grant for regional marketing projects. The aim is to promote travel during the quiet months of November through April.
The North of Boston office, based in Salisbury, will share the grant with the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, forming a “super-region” for travel initiatives, said Gardella. That group is one of six regions across the Commonwealth that received a $1 million Travel and Tourism Season Extension Grant, a byproduct of COVID recovery funding.
The six regions include Western Mass., Greater Boston, South of Boston, Cape & Islands, North of Boston, and Central Mass.
The ceremony for the North of Boston grant took place at the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, the kind of time-tested historic tourist attraction that Greater Boston has in abundance. The 250th anniversary of American independence is fast approaching in 2026, Gardella noted, and tourism professionals are gearing up.
“Heritage sites are gaining in popularity like wildfire,” she said.
On the South Shore, Lea Filson of See Plymouth, the tourism office for the town and county, welcomed the windfall to boost offseason traffic in the area’s arts district, its fast-growing restaurant scene, and more. The Plymouth office will share its grant with the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce in Fall River.
“In order for us to compete effectively in the tourism world, we need to have money to promote these events year-round,” she said. “Yes, the numbers do dip during the ‘shoulder’ season” — the period of time between peak and offseason. (The Plimoth Patuxet Museums, the area’s biggest attractions, are closed from just after Thanksgiving through the month of March.)
“That’s the beauty of a grant like this. We can remind people during those slower times – ‘Oh yeah, let’s go see that.’”
According to Gardella, a “visitor” is defined as someone who travels at least 50 miles to arrive at a destination and then stays for six hours or more.
“We’re not talking about a person who hops off the highway and gets a tank of gas,” she said.
The state Office of Travel & Tourism recently launched a new statewide promotional campaign called “Take a Moment.” According to the office, its 2022 advertising attracted more than 50,000 visitors to the state and increased local coffers by $101 million. These efforts put the state on track to recoup some of the losses of the pandemic shutdown and build back toward the record-breaking numbers of 2019, when tourist spending totaled $24.9 billion.
Filson spent several years working in the tourism business in New Orleans, but her move to Plymouth a few years ago was a natural one: Her ancestry includes at least eight family members who were on the Mayflower.
Regional tourism is a huge part of Plymouth County’s economy, she said. In fact, tourism is the number one industry in the area year-round. With an annual influx of seasonal workers across the hospitality industry, “There are so many people who come together to try and delight that visitor,” she said.
Filson noted that New Englanders are more likely to visit their neighboring states than residents of other parts of the country. It’s a bit like continental Europe in that regard, she said.
Travel professionals have been working hard to capitalize on the growing notion that vacations should be more than just fun and games, Filson said, and Massachusetts’s many historic sites fit the bill.
“Many more people look at leisure activities as something we really need to have a balanced life,” she said. “If you soak up something new, gain some new knowledge or a new experience, it really does add to your quality of life.”
Gardella ran the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce for about 15 years before accepting the North of Boston post a little over a year ago. Settling in Haverhill, she has quickly discovered some favorite destinations near her new home, such as the spa services at the Briar Barn Inn in Rowley (“such a delicious, divine treat!”), the new Salted Cod Arthouse in the Rocky Neck Art Colony in Gloucester (another hit with the international tour operators), and the cider doughnuts at Amesbury’s Cider Hill Farm, which she recently recommended to Virgin Atlantic’s in-flight magazine.
“I drank the Kool-Aid on the Vineyard for a long time,” Gardella said with a laugh. “I thought it was the most beautiful place until I went to the Crane Estate” in Ipswich.
“In no way am I disparaging my 15-year love affair with the Vineyard, but I would put the North Shore up against anywhere in the world. And I would do it year-round.”